Monday, May 28, 2018

Mama Cozzi's Cheeseburger Take and Bake Pizza (Aldi)

After all this time off, and I'm still horrible about taking product photos.
Whoa, my old age is really starting to rear its ugly head more and more often. Take, for example, this cheeseburger take and bake pizza, which quite literally had me at the name and nothing more. I just assumed, as is normally the case with things like this, that it would just be some cheese, some hamburger meat, maybe some onions, and that would be that. So sure of myself was I that I never even thought to double-check the ingredients—I got it in my mind that I wanted it, picked it up without reading the box, and took it home. 

It wasn't until my wife read the box, a look of shock and confusion across her face, that I began to second-guess myself. What could be so weird about a cheeseburger pizza? Then I read the ingredients, and what I found simultaneously disgusted and delighted me. This isn't just some hamburger meat and cheese thrown on a typical pizza sauce like so many other purported cheeseburger pizzas turn out to be. No, this one is only missing some lettuce in terms of being a literal cheeseburger. You have the obligatory crumbled hamburger patties, along with cheddar and mozzarella. Then some onions, and tomatoes, nothing out of the ordinary so far. But this is where things start to get a little bizarre: there are whole pickle slices across the damned thing. And as if that wasn't enough to make you think twice, the pizza sauce is replaced with a “ketchup mustard sauce”. Holy mother of God, what did I get myself into?

The ensuing dinner became one of the most divisive meals I've ever had in my life, and I'm just talking about from within myself. On the one hand, everything comes together way better than you would ever have expected, but on the other hand, there are just some things that shouldn't taste like a cheeseburger. And a pizza would probably be one of them. I can't recall another time when I dreaded and anticipated the next bite in equal measure...even now as I remember the two slices remaining from last night (when only two slices remain, something can't be all bad), my stomach simultaneously turns as my mouth waters. It's a pretty off-kilter experience.

I think the main reason for this is the ridiculous richness of the ketchup/mustard sauce, which tastes like a mix of lots of ketchup and lots of mustard. The sweet/savory combination of the two leads to an overwhelming of the tastebuds, which then leads to fatigue, and then eventual tastebud collapse. If this were toned down just a bit, I think we'd be looking at a grade-A supermarket pizza, but it's so potent that just thinking about taking a bite makes my stomach a little queasy (though it doesn't stop me from eventually digging in).

As a testament to the harmony of the rest of the ingredients, the pickles somehow go really well with everything wife and I both vowed to take them off of the pizza at first (a curious notion given my wife's love of anything pickle), but we ended up eating all of them. The hamburger crumbles and cheese work as well as you would expect, while the tomatoes and onions merely get lost in the flavor overload of everything else...I completely forgot they were even in there. And if onions are getting overpowered, then what does that say about the strength of the remaining ingredients, for goodness sakes?

If you're in an adventurous mood, it doesn't get much weirder than this, so I urge you to check it out. But if you're just looking for a delicious, straightforward pizza, then stay far away from this one. Even after polishing off the rest the next day, I'm still torn about what I think of it, something that I can't recall ever happening to me. It's something that really shouldn't exist, but it does, and those are about my only clear thoughts on the matter.

Overall: 5/10. Even after eating this whole pizza (with my wife, over a span of two days), I'm almost completely unsure as to what I think about it. On the one hand, it's not nearly as disgusting as it sounds, and all the ingredients go really well together; on the other hand, the sauce is ridiculously rich and tastes like globs of ketchup mixed with globs of mustard, and the combination becomes rather overwhelming in a hurry. It's the perfect pizza for someone who feels like they've tried it all, but it's not really something that I would seek's basically heartburn and an upset stomach waiting to happen. If you do take the plunge, just make sure you have loads of antacids on hand, for the next week or so.

Mama Cozzi's 16" Extra Large Buffalo Style Boneless Chicken Wyngz Take and Bake Pizza (Aldi)

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I do not like buffalo. The sauce, I mean...I've never visited the city. It just always has a sourness to it that I don't like in the least; it's as if it hits my tastebuds with a dull “thud” that doesn't match the ensuing heat that takes over a short while later. The first time I tried it, at the urging of my wife several years ago, I just thought it was a bad example of it—until I tried a couple more, all with the same flat flavor. Buffalo is not a thing for me.

My wife, on the other hand, absolutely adores the stuff. She greatly enjoys the buffalo chicken pizza at Rooster's, citing it as one of her favorite overall pizzas, and also gets the same at a sports bar that's right down the street from us. I don't know that she's tried enough different variations to be considered a connoisseur, but it's got to be one of her favorite condiments (or sauces, or dressings, or whatever category it would fall into).

Yet, as much as I try to avoid it, there are times when you've just gotta suck it up and give it a shot. I mean, hey, I did hate blue cheese before I met my wife—a hereditary hatred that my mother still has—but I tried a couple bites of my wife's wedge salad at a restaurant once, and now I can't get enough of the stuff. The biggest kicker in this whole story, however, is that I had to fast for an entire day of work, just so I could get some blood tests done afterwards. To say that I was hungry felt like a complete understatement—I was hungry enough to eat just about anything, and I even surprised myself when I was the one that suggested this. After all, her love of cheese won me over, so why not her love of buffalo sauce?

It's going to take a lot more than this pizza to get me to love it, but it tries its darndest: It's quite delicious, and it's not just the intense hunger pains telling me that. The buffalo still has that same flavor that I'm indifferent to, but everything around it is so delicious that it compliments the sauce as best as it can for me. The cheddar has a sharpness that plays off the spicy sauce layer, while the crust—which is somewhere between “thin” and “standard”--cooks up nice and delicious thanks to its thinness, while still giving you something to dip in ranch at the end.

So, to sum up, if you're a fan of buffalo, then you are going to love this. If you're not, then there's really no need to give it a try.

Overall: 6/10. It's as fine an example of buffalo as I've had, but that's a confusing statement, considering I don't like buffalo sauce all that much, so take my opinion with a grain of salt. Still, as much as I still dislike the buffalo flavor here, the supporting cast work so well around it that it is one of the most delicious uses I could ever imagine it in: the cheddar has that perfect amount of sharpness to compliment the sauce as best as it can, and the crust cooks up perfectly crisp, giving you something to dip in a sauce other than buffalo to get a break from it all. I'm not sure I'd ever get this again, and I definitely wouldn't seek it out, but for those that have a stronger affinity to buffalo sauce than I do, it's worth a try.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Cosmic Fruit Smoothies Galactic Berry Fruit Smoothie (Dollar Tree)

One of the "healthiest", best values at "The Tree".
Well what do we have here? Why, it's a Galactic Berry fruit smoothie! It consists of 1/5 banana, 2 strawberries, 4 blackberries, 4 raspberries, and 2 whole apples. Not a bad roster for just $1. For anyone that might be off-put by the lack of thickness in the strawberry banana smoothie, which I previously reviewed, only gets worse here, because this is basically just straight-up juice. Kind of makes me wonder why there's a need for any thickening agents at all in this one, really. Again, though, these complaints also carry over to the national brand, so there are no points deducted on this one for that.

The aroma is also very close to the national brand, at least from what I remember, though it has been quite a while since I've had it. I can't really recall how accurate the taste is with absolute certainty, because the national brand berry variant is not one of my favorites, but there's definitely a strong berry flavor that immediately hits the tastebuds. It is also free of any weird aftertastes or bitter notes, much like the strawberry banana version that I reviewed above. I have to say one other thing I'm very surprised about with this line is the strength of would at least expect the addition of water (first on the ingredient list, no less) to really alter the taste, or at least water it down to a noticeable degree, but these are every bit as strong as the more expensive brands are. Kudos to Cosmic for not only bringing this to the dollar store masses, but for doing it so well. It's an impressive feat, and certainly one of the best edible offerings that I've ever encountered at a Dollar Tree.

Again, the same issues with the strawberry banana variant (higher sugar content, though none added; notable lack of vitamins; added "natural flavors"; water tops on the ingredient list to name the worst) still remain here. But as I also stated earlier, this is one of the few genuine "100% juice" products that Dollar Tree carries. Those grounds are enough for me to give it a recommendation, but the fact that the flavor hits so close to more expensive brands is enough for me to up that recommendation considerably.

Overall: 7.5/10. This flavor isn't one of my favorites to begin with, but everything else is pretty darn solid. It's been a while since I've tried the national brand berry drink, so I can't compare the two with any kind of certainty, but what I do know is Cosmic's version serves up a sweet, strong berry taste that hits the tastebuds with force, and doesn't let up. The same drawbacks apply to the strawberry banana version above (added thickening agents, a curious “necessity” given that this one is even thinner than the other one; filtered water as the first ingredient; the addition of “natural flavors”; and a notable absence of many vitamins, including vitamin C) but given how close it tastes to more expensive brands, while still containing 100% juice and hitting the dollar price point, is certainly an admirable feat in itself. Unarguably one of the “healthier” beverage options at “The Tree”, and one that's well worth picking up.

Cosmic Fruit Smoothies Strawberry Banana Fruit Smoothie (Dollar Tree)

Not only is this "not bad", it's actually genuinely good!
I was at Dollar Tree with my wife the other day, and was bored. We had just bought a present for a one-year-old girl (the daughter of our good friends) and were looking at some inexpensive ways to wrap/present it. Actually, that line translates to, “My wife was looking for inexpensive ways to wrap/present it while I was wandering around the store.” Wrapping is certainly not my forte, as anyone who has ever seen one of my presents can attest. 

I had actually just received the go-ahead that we were ready to go when my eyes locked up on this product, almost tucked away on the top shelf of a cooler. I had walked by this area three times and somehow missed it every single one of those times. I went in for a closer look—what was in that small plastic bottle with the unassuming label? Just a juice? As I got closer, I got noticeably excited...this wasn't “just a juice”, but rather a fruit smoothie! The label itself even listed out the fruit contents contained in the bottle, just as the national brand does (in this case, we have 8 strawberries, ½ a banana, and 1 apple)! It was probably going to be terrible, but I just had to give this a “go”. And as soon as I got home, I cracked this one open.

As my wife noted, texture-wise this is about on point with the brand name “smoothie” drink, in that it's not very thick at all. It's a little thicker than a juice, but still runs freely and pretty quickly when tipped over, rather than the slower chug that a real smoothie would have. This is a deal-breaker for my wife, and the main reason she dislikes even the name brand; it is slightly annoying to me (why can't they just find something else to thicken it up a bit more?) so I see where she's coming from, but I still enjoy getting them from time to time, especially when I can get them for cheap. A quick whiff of the concoction had me even more excited: it smells good, and almost entirely accurate. Could this be the product that it's purporting to be for once?

I was expecting this to be where the similarities end—for the most part, edible things just already don't tend to do well at Dollar Tree; “healthier” things seem to fare even worse. But imagine my genuine surprise when the taste matched up almost perfectly to the name brand. There are no bitter or weird aftertastes, no weird smells, no bizarre or unexpected texture changes—it's one of the better knockoffs I've ever tasted at “The Tree”, and for someone who is terrified to try almost everything edible they offer, that is certainly saying something. The flavor here is very sweet, another similarity, but also tastes strongly (and authentically) of both strawberries and bananas, as it should. It goes down smooth without any artificial's shockingly spot-on, at least where appearance, smell, and flavor are concerned, and that alone makes it a great buy for $1.

Now, of course all of this is going to come at a “cost”: A quick search of the label indicates that there are a few more ingredients added than what you will find in the main brand. For example, the number one ingredient is “filtered water”, something that isn't found in more expensive brands at all. There are also added thickening agents (xanthan and guar gums). But perhaps the biggest disappointment is the addition of “natural flavors”, that mysteriously-defined legal ingredient that's basically just lab-created flavor. Granted, it is the final ingredient listed, which should mean it's used the least out of all the others, but still it's kind of sad to see in an otherwise "all natural" beverage.

Oh, but there's more: There are also way fewer vitamins than you will find in the national brand, with just 2% iron, calcium, and 15% potassium per single serving in Cosmic's version. Curiously, vitamin C is missing out entirely, something that can generally be found in abundance just about everywhere in the juice world. Sugars are also pretty high, at a whopping 40g per bottle (12g more than the national brand); however, these must all occur naturally within the fruit, because according to the label, no sugar is added.

Also an oddity that I have pointed out before, but that is by no means confined to this beverage: I don't like how products that have water added, can still be considered 100% juice. How is that possible? Here we have an item where "filtered water" is the number 1 ingredient, and it's still labeled 100% juice, putting it in the same boat with fresh-squeezed juices, and the like. Yeah, if you really dig down and look at the ingredients, you'll see that the apple juice is "from concentrate", but that takes reading some fine print--right abobve the nutrition label, in a bold and clear font, reads "100% Juice", with no asterisks or other footnotes to let you know it's "from concentrate". This is more a rant and a general gripe than a knock against this particular product, but it's something that irks me nonetheless.

Anyway, this “research” isn't presented to bad-mouth this product, but rather just me thinking out loud. Even despite all its shortcomings, I would still gladly recommend this product. There are very few options for 100% juice products at Dollar Tree (though 32 oz. bottles of name brand apple juice have recently made an appearance), and the fact that this also happens to be non-GMO, gluten free, AND vegan makes this feat even more impressive. Price-wise, and I'm only going off Aldi prices because I can't for the life of me remember how much the national brand is at other supermarkets, this even manages to be a slightly better deal: Each 12 oz. bottle of Cosmic is $1 at Dollar Tree, which means 36 oz. would be $3. Aldi has 32 oz. bottles of the name brand for right around $3, which basically means you're getting 4 oz. for free. Of course, the national brand is more “natural” and without some added filler, but this is still, at least in my eyes, quite a fantastic deal.

Overall: 8/10. Mind-blowing for its price, this is an almost perfect knockoff of the national brand, at least in terms of flavor, and at a price that represents a very solid deal. There are some caveats to bring the price down to the required price point—natural flavors are added, as well as thickening agents, filtered water is number one on the ingredient list, and a notable absence of many vitamins—but it still manages to be 100% juice (from concentrate) with strawberry and banana puree listed right underneath water. The flavor is very sweet, but consists almost entirely of strawberry and banana. It's still not very thick, but neither is the national brand, so no points deducted for that. Any way you look at it, this is a fantastic product, and one that's highly recommended.